Court Hears Case of Businessman’s Land Swap Deal Gone Sour

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday heard the case of a businessman who was charged with fraud after he acquired the office of the municipal women’s affairs department in a 2012 land swap, but failed to hand over the property to a tycoon to whom he had sold it.

Under the land swap deal, Ith Sothara, 55, agreed to build a new office for the women’s affairs department in Dangkao district in exchange for being given the department’s current site in Chamkar Mon district’s Tonle Bassac commune.

The agreement also had a number of other stipulations, including that Mr. Sothara would make cash payments to department staff, provide a land title for the new building and arrange to have the Tonle Bassac real estate officially valued so that he could pay a percentage of its worth to the government.

However, before fulfilling all of these commitments, he quickly sold the plot of land for $575,000 to another businessman, identified in court only as “Oknha Youry.” The women’s affairs department then refused to vacate the land, and although Mr. Youry paid $535,000 to Mr. Sothara in 2013, he was never able to take possession of the property.

Holl Sina, the lawyer for Mr. Youry, who was not present in court Thursday, said that Mr. Sothara had initially promised that the site would be vacated by July 2013.

“He faked his position in order to get a contract and cheated my client, cheated the handing over of the location, because he had not fulfilled enough criteria to have ownership of the real estate that is legally owned by the women’s affairs office,” he said.

Kea Eav, the lawyer for Mr. Sothara, who was also not in court, said that the land had already been transferred in principle to Mr. Youry, but his client was under no obligation to give him possession until he had handed over the purchase price in full.

“In the contract, it says that seven days after the payment is received in full, the land would be transferred,” he said. “We ask his side: Have you paid the full amount now that you dare to make this complaint?”

Deputy prosecutor Kol Bun said he believed the charge of fraud was appropriate in the case and asked the court to find Mr. Sothara guilty.

Reached after the trial, Keo Chan Duong, the director of the women’s affairs department, insisted that she would not vacate the disputed land until Mr. Sothara’s company, HSA, met all the terms of the contract.

“The company did not fulfill the requirements as stated in the contract,” she said. “I will not leave unless the company follows the procedure of the government.”

She declined to discuss how much cash Mr. Sothara was contracted to pay to her staffers, calling it “an internal matter.”

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